Friday, September 05, 2008

Today's Morale-Buster

For those keeping score at home, the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, has been a part of three major decisions during his brief tenure in office.

First, he decided that unit-level maintenance organizations would not be absorbed by flying squadrons, putting flightline maintainers (and their officers) under the control of pilots, who--in most cases--have little experience or expertise in running maintenance operations.

It was a stunning blow for common sense, with Schwartz resisting the temptation to reimpose the organizational scheme of General "Tony" McPeak, who served as Chief of Staff in the early 1990s.

More recently, General Schwartz and other Air Force leaders have determined that airmen don't need standardized combat training. Reaction to that decision has been mixed; while many of the personnel who operate "outside the wire" already receive combat training, the now-cancelled CBAT (Common Battlefield Airmen Training) was an opportunity to provide those skills to airmen in career fields that are now operating beyond the base perimeter.

True, there are other training programs and venues. But no one has fully demonstrated that those efforts will provide the right set of combat skills to all airmen who need them. We'll be charitable and say that Schwartz and his leadership team got the CBAT decision only half-right.

With his latest decision, the new chief of staff is headed in the wrong direction. Beginning on 8 September, most airmen will be required to wear their service dress uniforms every Monday. Previously, most Air Force personnel wore flight suits or battle dress uniforms for their daily duties.

That policy dated back to 9-11, and then-chief of staff General John Jumper. With the nation at war, he reasoned, Air Force personnel should wear the uniform they would wear in combat. It has proven to be a popular and appropriate decision.

Not only are BDUs more comfortable than the blue, service-dress uniform, they also reflect an expeditionary force that is an active participant in the GWOT, or at least in theory. Did we mention that over half of all Air Force personnel have never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? But that's an issue for another day.

While combat operations continue, General Schwartz believes that airmen at home station need to get back to their roots by wearing service dress uniforms one day a week. He outlined his rationale for the change in a memo that was released yesterday, and quoted in Air Force Times.

“Post-9/11, we’ve moved away from our blue uniforms almost altogether and have transformed into an Air Force that wears our utility uniform on a daily basis,” Schwartz said in the memo. “During our recent 4-star summit, we had several discussions concerning our uniforms ... [and] we all agreed that part of our image, culture and professionalism is instilled in our blues.”

To be fair, the new policy is light-years away from McPeak's uniform redesign of the early 1990s, which replaced traditional service dress with uniforms that were described as a cross between Coast Guard blues and garb worn by airline pilots.

And, General Schwartz is allowing a degree of flexibility in implementing the decision. The mandate that goes into effect next week exempts "down and dirty" career fields like maintenance and security forces. It also allows installation commanders to make the final decision on who can still wear flight suits and BDUs on Mondays.

But the policy comes perilously close to the hated uniform requirements once reserved for personnel at major command headquarters and the Air Staff. Years ago, staff officers and NCOs dreaded 1 October. Their sentiments had nothing to do with the change of seasons, or the start of a new fiscal year. Instead, their dislike was rooted in a policy that required long-sleeve shirts and ties for men (tie tabs for women) between 1 October and the end of March.

Never mind that many of us worked in overheated buildings and short-sleeve shirts would have been equally professional--and much more comfortable. Once upon a time, some four-star decided that we all needed to be in long sleeves and ties (or tie tabs) during the fall and winter months, and it took years to get some leeway in that policy.

It was the same mentality that barred open-collar shirts with the "wooly-pully" sweater, another lame-brained decison that remained on the books forever. Clearly, common sense and Air Force uniform decisions rarely intersect.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with the service dress uniform and Air Force members wear it proudly, regardless of how often--or infrequently--it comes out of the closet. Mandating its wear on Mondays strikes us as an exercise in micro-management, another "Mickey Mouse" requirement being levied on the troops.

From our perspective, USAF leadership has more pressing issues than telling everyone what to wear on the first day of the work week. It's time to get cracking on those problems, and put such trivial issues on the backburner. Our airmen--the same ones now scrounging through their closets in preparation for Monday--deserve better.


Ed Rasimus said...

Talk about mountains out of molehills. A "utility" uniform labeled "battle dress" should be worn for field duty. That's quite simple. Possibly the greatest unrecognized oxymoron I ever encountered was the "maternity BDU"!

If "service dress" translates to Class A, then I might sympathize a little bit, but if it simply means uniform shirt and trousers rather than BDUs or flight suits, I'd gladly accept the retro of it.

I never got over the idea of a rated type on staff duty coming to the office in a flight suit. It doesn't work and, in fact, creates animosity with non-rated personnel.

A few years ago a fighter squadron with a long history dating back to WW II, Korea and Vietnam was deactivated. I had been in the organization and attended the ceremony. I was astonished and dismayed when it was conducted in flight suits. The "formal" dining-in was also done in flight suits. It might be comfortable, but it isn't dignified for a formal occasion nor respectful of the heritage.

I might be old school, but a uniform is supposed to be distinctive and respected. It isn't T-shirt and jeans. The day they let an officer carry an umbrella was a dark day in history.

"Cover" needs to be returned as well. Might even go to utilities allowed only proceeding to and from duty with no non-essential business stops.

If being in the military is too uncomfortable, then maybe another less restrictive profession is in order.

J.R. said...

I'm with Ed on this. When I was stationed in DC, my commander was very clear about BDUs vs. blues vs. service dress. BDUs were for dirty duty (of which our desk-jockeys had very little). Blues were standard professional office wear. Service dress including the jacket was mandatory if you were heading inside the Beltway.

For a while we had "casual Fridays" in our mixed mil/civ office -- and military could wear BDUs. We experimented (briefly!!!) with actual civvies -- khakis and collared shirts -- on Fridays, too, but it proved to be too much freedom for some of the junior officers.

I think going back to blues as the default uniform is okay... but the service dress jacket is just like a civilian wearing a suit: unnecessarily formal unless you're going to be making a formal presentation.

PCSSEPA said...

Ed is spot on with his comments.

Dave Rickey said...

Although I wasn't a fan of mickey mouse regs, I can see the point in this one. I worked in a maintenance field, and we all wore BDU's for daily duty, rarely wearing our blues and never wearing the jackets or wheel caps. Like all maintenance troops on that base, we were allowed to wear our daily uniform for all duty purposes.

Then the base commander was retiring and wanted a formal inspection parade for the change of command ceremony...on two weeks notice. Maintenance airmen and NCO's all over the base suddenly realized they'd never updated their stripes on their jackets, and they'd been 20 pounds lighter the last time they had them on. Their wheel caps had fallen to the bottom of their closets a year before and been kicking around with their muddy and greasy boots. They didn't have an up to date version of their ribbons.

The base ran out of most sizes of wheel caps and jackets. They ran out of blue Staff Sergeant stripes. They ran out of a ribbon for a commendation the whole base had received a few months earlier. Every alteration service both on base and in town was booked solid letting out uniforms and sewing on stripes, or taking in those that had been purchased too large because the right size wasn't available.

If you looked closely at the maintenance units on parade day, they were a motley crew. Most were properly 35-10, but more than a few had hand-sewn their own stripes, had frayed or outdated ribbons, scratched nametags, or slightly puckered jackets down the buttons. Folded paper towels were wedged into the left side of wheel caps to keep them from falling over their eyes while marching (and a couple did anyway). And this was after the commanders and first sergeants had gone through and sent the worst cases to hide in the maintenance shops. I was only a few months out of tech school, so I wasn't part of the problem, but I happened to have seen my first sergeant tearing a set of stripes (with the diamond) off a uniform blouse to put on his jacket. SMSergeant stripes with a diamond were so rarely requested, the base had none at all on hand.

The incoming commander instituted a policy of squadron CO's having some event every month where full service blues would be required. Under the circumstances, everyone felt we got off lucky. That was with only about 1/3 of the base having a daily uniform of BDU's, I shudder to think of the results of a service-wide policy under the same circumstances.

So, it's a little mickey mouse, but if you're not going to get rid of service dress, you need some way of avoiding the natural drift down the path of least resistance.


Mike said...

Normally I deride Mickey Mouse BS as much as the next guy, but I think Gen. Schwartz has a point here.

Worth noting that the Marines, who I think everyone can agree are warriors who put up with little MM type stuff, still have a policy of wearing their equivalent of open collar blues as the standard UOD. Indeed, they can't even wear utilities unless they are required for duty (in the field, maintenance, etc.) and then they can only be worn off base if transiting to or from their place of residence.

I have enough faith in Gen. Schwartz that I think this is being done for a purpose, not just for MM reasons.

kitanis said...

I have nothing against the policy myself. But as person who was in a "sitdown" job (The Graphics Career field that was finally eliminated) There were times when I wore service dress or a blue uniform combination and suddenly told by my flight chief or commander to get a job done right now that involves either heavy lifting or setting up a presentation setup in very dirty or tight places.

I can tell you that one year, I went through at least four pairs of blue pants and at least five or six shirts due to this sort of situation. I usually worked in a area where I was not allowed to store a set of BDU's to change into and time constraints on these occurances usually kepted you from going home to quickly change uniforms.

It was in those times that I developed adversion to putting on a blue uniform on a regular basis. Because of the attitude to get the job done NOW also equated to my purchasing blue uniform items from AAFES at a increased rate well above my clothing maintenance allowance level. Am I bitching.. yeah a little bit but I still wore a blue combination at odd times even when the BDU standard to support "warfighting" policy came into place.

Years ago I worked in a unit that Blues on Thursdays mandatory policy that was brought into play be CMSgt with the commanders approval.. First day came up.. and half the unit was tasked to go outside to clear a freshly fallen snowfall that developed in the morning.. Not a good start to a proffesional uniform appearence.

The new chief of staff policy will meet with less than enthusiastic reception at first.. but eventually it will become routine... and be part of the normal daily operations

OldSarg said...

You know if you wanted to raise moral and bring pride back into the wearing of a formal uniform the Air Force would adopt the Army Air Corps Uniform.

Ed Rasimus said...

Gotta agree, Sarge. Not sure I'd go back as far as leather puttees and johdpurs, but "pinks and greens" weren't bad. Neither was the silver tan uniform.

The Marines certainly do the best at keeping a traditional uniform that is respected and they wear with pride. The USAF has been a disaster in that regard, chasing trends and styles often disastrously.

When I retired after 23 years the only uniform item that hadn't changed was black socks. Some items had changed several times.

owr084 said...

There is a much simpler explanation for requiring blues to be worn once a week.

It all started back in 93 when Gen Fogelman, then AMC commander, decided that everyone at AMC HQ would wear their BDUs on a daily basis to show their support for the "warrior." This immediately exacerbated the shortage of BDU sets in clothing sales.

Fortunately for us, we were performing a "QAFA" at Kirtland at the time. We managed to convince clothing sales to open on Sunday before we left to buy our own BDU sets and some for the folks back at Scott.

Well, everything went fine for a few months until someone noticed a sudden up-tick in weight gain among the personnel. BDUs can cover a multitude of sins, including large weight gains.

So, the quick and dirty solution was to make everyone put on their blues once a month. It is much easier to spot an overweight person in blues than it is a person in BDUs.

Why they made it once a week, I do not know. Unless it is to put more pressure on the members of the fatboy/girl program...

Ken Prescott said...

In eight years as a Marine, aside from uniform inspections, I wore the Service Dress A and Service Dress C uniforms an average of approximately 3-4 times per year (mostly clustered around PCS rotations), with the balance of that time spent in cammies.

I never had an improperly tailored uniform; I never had an unserviceable uniform; I never had a uniform that did not indicate my correct rank; I never had an unserviceable or incorrect set of ribbons. I never violated weight or military appearance standards.

Then again, the Marine Corps had this unreasonable expectation that their Marines were responsible adults who were able to maintain their uniforms properly, maintain an appropriate level of physical fitness, and in general not embarrass their commanding officer and/or sergeant major--and God help the Marine who managed to fail in any of the above tasks.

tontochoc said...

It is the air force 'civilian in uniform argument' all over again. I thought the Royal Australian Air Force was the only one who had these issues. When we went from the blue raiway staff uniform - (How long is the next train son? style Oh about fifty metres Ma'am) to the old Second World War model we were ordered to buy it when it should have been free initial issue.

I think that is the point here. The uniform in its entirety was more expensive than two years worth of uniform maintenance allowance. I agree a dining in night in flight suits was an aircrew wank, condsidering that there is a formal mess dress.

I wore a full uniform with jacket once in eleven years of being deployed in an operational position as a 'shiny bum' and then that was a cluster. The person who was to inspect us as a matter of protocol, on a 60 dgree centigrade tarmac, just walked straight past us.

Rear unit commanding officers like the dress uniforms and pomp and ceremony (it makes them feel important) whilst front line units are too busy to do it. Nothing has changed in the past few centuries.